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Phillip Noyce explores the making of a terrorist from the dark days of Apartheid, and finds that the example of Patrick Chamusso holds an important message for the world: forgiveness. Andrew L. Urban reports.

South African writer Shawn Slovo admits she was amazed that Tim Bevan and Debra Haywood of UK’s Working Title agreed to back her screenplay about her father’s friend, Patrick Chamusso; “It is an absolute miracle as far as I’m concerned that they backed a story about the making of a so called terrorist.”

And while topical all right, it might also seem at first glance to be a questionable subject if a film is to make a hero of such a figure. But as director Phil Noyce points out, this is exactly the kind of story the world needs to hear. “It’s about forgiveness … and nothing can be achieved in this world without forgiveness.” That, coupled with the theme, is a powerful message – although Noyce makes sure the film is not a sermon but a drama.

To understand what Noyce means, we have to understand the story of Patrick Chamusso, who in the 80s was serving a 24 year prison sentence for an act of terrorism – albeit not the murderous terrorism as we have come to know it today, more an act of sabotage. Shawn’s father Joe Slovo, a former head of the military wing (MK) of the African National Congress (ANC) and later minister in Nelson Mandela’s first government, told her about Chamusso. If she ever wanted to write a story about the ANC’s armed struggle against Apartheid, then she should tell the story of Patrick Chamusso, an ordinary man who joined the ANC and tried to blow up the Secunda Oil Refinery. The refinery, one of the largest in the world, was a symbol of South Africa’s self-sufficiency at a time when there were economic boycotts in place to protect the regime’s policies. It was also a symbol of the wealth and riches of South Africa, earned in part by the exploitation of cheap black labour. Joe planned the mission and Chamusso carried it out single handedly, earning him the codename ‘Hotstuff’.

There are two key elements to Chamusso’s story that make the difference: first, he was a political innocent with no involvement in sabotage when he was first arrested, tortured and jailed on suspicion. These experiences radicalised him and propelled him into the arms of the ANC, where he sought to help change his world. His act of sabotage was carefully planned so as to avoid any casualties. It didn’t quite succeed.

But the second key element is about Chamusso’s character: he was sentenced to 24 years and sent to the labour camp on Robben Island. In 1991 when Nelson Mandela was finally freed after 27 years imprisonment, Chamusso had spent 10 years there; he was released as part of the amnesty granted to all political prisoners. Joe put Shawn in touch with him and they met two weeks after his release from prison. For the next three days, Shawn recorded Chamusso recounting his story and those conversations provided the inspiration for the film. Chamusso chose to forgive his captors – and now runs an orphanage in northern South Africa for children whose parents have died of AIDS.

"a character who audiences all over the world could identify with"

Shawn says. “I recognized in Chamusso, a character who audiences all over the world could identify with.” She explains, “He’s not a typical hero of South Africa’s struggle in that here is a man who had no political history, education or background before joining the ANC. He is an ordinary man who loved his family, had a good job and was passionate about football. But when things did go wrong, instead of giving in or being immobilized, he decided to take control. That is extremely heroic to me.”

Noyce took the film seriously enough not to be over confident. “For the first three or four months of working on this movie I did virtually nothing else but meet people, trying to recreate the mood back in the early 80s, trying to understand things from a black and a white South African viewpoint.”

This involved travelling around with Robyn and Shawn and interviewing everyone that he could possibly meet who might have been involved in Chamusso’s story. They also visited the locations where the actual story took place, from the oil refinery at Secunda, through to the ANC villa in Maputo, Mozambique, retracing Chamusso’s journey out of South Africa to Angola, back into South Africa again and finally to prison on Robben Island.

He says, “In the end it was something rather simple that allowed me finally to have the confidence to make this movie and that was taking a car and driving around South Africa for about ten days. Once I could turn left and right and sort of navigate around the country I felt as though I had my feet on the ground, and now armed also with all the research, I could make a film about that place and that time and maybe do it justice.”

It was on the same research trip that Noyce met Chamusso for the first time. This first meeting had a profound effect on the screenplay as Noyce worked to have even more of the true events put back into the story. Shawn explains, “I had fictionalised the story because however good a story is, and however true to life it is, it doesn’t always make a film. When Philip met Patrick and spent hours and hours listening to his recounting of his story, his first reaction was, ‘well if this happens why isn’t it in the script?’

Noyce explains, “I just wanted to sit Chamusso down and intensively debrief him, get him to tell me the story of his life from birth as he remembered it right through to the present day. And for about two days he just spoke into a camera, into a microphone, going over it all.”

Noyce wanted to hear the reasons why Patrick felt that he had to leave that relatively comfortable life, cross the border to Mozambique and become a soldier? Why he felt that he had to take up arms and fight back against the Apartheid regime? Importantly he wanted to get all the minutiae, the details; how did Chamusso break into the Secunda refinery? What was it like training to be a soldier in Angola? What happened to him when he was imprisoned on Robben Island?

"a story about the miracle of South Africa"

The three key characters in the film are Chamusso, his wife Precious and the South African security officer Nic Vos; in the film they are played by Derek Luke, Bonnie Mbuli and Tim Robbins – the latter because Noyce wanted to avoid stereotype casting. “I felt that in Tim I'd found an actor who would be able to go beyond the stereotypical white South African racist villain that we've sometimes seen on the screen. I knew he could reveal how any one of us, the audience, could behave in exactly the same way as Nick Vos.”

Noyce adds, “Although this is a story about the past it's also a story about the miracle of South Africa. And Chamusso is just one example of that miracle.”

Published November 23, 2006

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